Landmark Building’s Colourful Past

CaponesThere was a lot of interest in the ‘Capone’s’ building when Essence ran a small story on it in June, so with the help of the original owner’s great-grandson, Max Luisetti, JO BAILEY has pieced together more of its early history.

Rangiora cinema-goers in the early 1900s would break into applause when local boot maker Alf Hunnibell arrived at the theatre with his candle tucked inside a boot box.

This was the era of silent movies, and the arrival of Alf, a talented pianist, would herald the start of the movie. He would light his candle and play the piano by ear, matching the mood of the music to the action on screen.

At half time he was often embarrassed when children offered him half-eaten, sticky sweets which he felt obliged to eat.

Alf didn’t have far to walk to the Institute Hall on High Street, where the movies were shown.

He and wife Ethel lived just a few doors away in their two-storey, colonial-style home, where they also carried out the family tradition of making and repairing boots.

Today this building is instantly recognisable as the home of Capone’s Restaurant.

Alf’s parents, Luke and Sara Martha Hunnibell, arrived in New Zealand from England in the 1860s, and not long after, built their family home Ipswich around the corner in King Street.

Soon after they built the High Street premises, designed with five bedrooms upstairs to accommodate the apprentice boot makers they brought out from England for the business.

Luke is said to have made at least two trips back to England before his death aged 75 in 1913, taking his prized top hat in its heavy leather hat box with him – a family treasure, now in Max’s care.

Alf, the youngest of the Hunnibell’s six children was born in 1880. Later, he and his wife Ethel lived behind the boot shop and workroom in what was by then known as the A Hunnibell Building.

They also cared for a large orchard and vegetable garden surrounding the house and stored some of what they grew in its cool, underground cellar, alongside their homemade wine, beer, jams and bags of coal.

The Hunnibell’s had a son Cecil and daughter Cora. She later married Vincent Luisetti, who in 1932 founded another long-standing family owned Rangiora business – Luisetti Seeds. Max Luisetti is the eldest of their five children.

Max has fond memories of regular visits to his grandparents’ home as a small boy. He says the house was a hive of activity during the Second World War when the front portion of the boot shop was used to pack and despatch food parcels to New Zealand soldiers on the front lines and prisoner-of-war camps.

“It wasn’t a huge building but there was several volunteers packing up things like cakes, chocolate, dried fruit, soaps and shaving gear.”

Alf Hunnibell had a passion for both music and sport. He was a pianist in Hunnibell’s Jazz Band that played at dances, balls and social functions all over North Canterbury. He was also the scorer for the Rangiora Cricket Club and secretary of the North Canterbury Rugby Sub-Union for around 25 years.

“All the rugby meetings were held at the High Street house and Nana was in charge of boiling the copper and washing the blue and red hooped jerseys. She dreaded it if they’d played on a wet day.”

Alf was also a movie buff who went to “every film ever shown in the Regent Theatre”, says Max.

“He sat in every seat in the main auditorium to find out which one had the best view. We still know which seat he chose and he was dead right too.”

Alf Hunnibell passed away in 1951 at the age of 70, however Ethel remained in the High Street house for many years afterwards.

“Nana was very personable and loved company. She rented the front of the building to the ANZ Bank when their new branch was being built, then a firm of local accounts WC Prosser & Sons moved in and were there for years.”

Ethel Hunnibell continued to live in the house alongside her tenants and “loved all the comings and goings”, says Max.

“The house was a real social centre of Rangiora. It sometimes felt like the whole world lived there. Nana was a fabulous cook and everyone got a warm welcome and was well fed.”

Ethel passed away at the age of 90 in 1976. The building’s colourful history of around 100 years in the Hunnibell family came to an end and it was finally sold. Its large, often admired garden was also subdivided and sold off.

In the last 35 years the A Hunnibell building has had a variety of uses – most notably as a bike shop, second-hand shop and for the last 12 years, as home to Capone’s Restaurant.

The building is currently owned by another well known North Canterbury businessman, saddler Don Clarke.

Max says there were times when the shop was empty over the years and it had a few “dodgy” tenants living upstairs.

“The police carried out several raids on the house at one stage before realising the tenants were jumping out onto the fire escape and stashing their drugs in the guttering.”

There is also the mystery of the loaded Colt pistol found by a previous tenant a few years ago when exploring the cellar, says Max.

“No one knows where it came from but given the gangster theme of Capone’s Restaurant it does seem rather apt.”